Sinn Fein dispute rumbles on following councillors’ appeal
COUNCILLORS JOHN SNELL, GERRY O’NEILL AND OLIVER O’BRIEN ARE STRIPPED OF PARTY WHIP AFTER LOSING THEIR APPEAL, BUT ONE HASN’T HEARD FROM THE PARTY, WRITES MYLES BUCHANAN
CLLR JOHN Snell has yet to receive any formal notification that he is no longer part of the Sinn Fein group sitting on Wicklow County Council.
Meanwhile, Councillors Gerry O’Neill and Oliver O’Brien, who have received notification by email, insist that they won’t be resigning their council seats.
The Sinn Fein Ard Comhairle has rejected an appeal by the three councillors against a decision to withdraw the whip. However, Cllr Snell has yet to be notified, despite a report in local media to the contrary.
‘I haven’t been notified so I think it is disappointing that Deputy John Brady would go to a free paper to say the Ard Comhairle had informed me that I was no longer a member of the Sinn Fein group in the council,’ said Cllr Snell.
‘My two colleagues received correspondence and my hearing was based on the same principles raised by councillors within Sinn Fein and the party. I am surprised that I wasn’t contacted by email, phone or in person, and that he would go to a local media source without picking up the phone or speaking to me in person first. I would like to know where he got this information from.’
The three councillors are at loggerheads with Deputy John Brady. The dispute arose after Cllr Nicola Lawless was made the party leader in the council, despite Cllr John Snell having a seat on the council for far longer.
Cllr Snell said he was ‘disappointed’ by leaks to the press, including reports in January that he hadn’t renewed his party membership.
‘It was very surprising because I had until the end of February to renew my membership, as is standard. That seems a clear breach of data protection laws and has more serious consequences for the party nationally, as well as locally.’
Cllr Snell said he felt great sadness at witnessing the way the three councillors have been treated since losing the party whip in February, which led to the appeal.
‘I worked to build up Sinn Fein within County Wicklow. I have been a member of Wicklow County Council for over eight years. At the start myself and John Brady were the only Sinn Fein councillors sitting on the council. It was with great joy we managed to achieve six seats at the last local elections.
‘Indeed, I was heartened to receive so much overall support in east Wicklow, but it was also great to see colleagues elected in every district. It was a milestone, not just for Wicklow, but for Sinn Fein nationally.
‘ Therefore it is with deep sadness that I am witnessing the decline of the structures of Sinn Fein within Wicklow. I would urge the party at national level to become more pro-active in getting to the bottom of problems that are perceived as adding to the demise of the party in the Garden County.’
It is also claimed that Deputy Brady is interfering too much with council activities.
Cllr Snell said: ‘When myself and Deputy Brady were councillors together from 2009 to 2014, while we pursued national policies when fit, such as property tax and water charges, it was always a given that councillors would be left alone to do the work of county councillors in their own constituencies.
‘Unfortunately, since the last General Election, it would appear there is a reluctance to allow Councillors do the work of the county council. There is a level of interference. I think this is widely accepted within Sinn Fein nationally as something which shouldn’t happen, but in Wicklow is still persists.’
Deputy Brady had been quoted stating that the outcome of the dispute was ‘ unfortunate’ but that ‘party rules’ had to be abided by.
However, Cllr Snell said: ‘When you sign up to be a member of any political party there are always rules and regulations to abide by. I accept that but Cllrs Mary McDonald and Nicola Lawless were not known to grass roots members in Wicklow at the time of the last elections.’
Cllr Gerry O’Neill joined Sinn Fein in 1974 in the old Kevin Street office and feels too much control is being exerted on local representatives.
He said: ‘I am bitterly disappointed at the level of control we have to adhere to of late and it seems to me that it’s getting to the point where the leadership in the county should maybe consider putting robots in the council chamber instead of human beings.
‘On the issue of toeing the party line and obeying the county leadership, it is almost unbearable at times, with no leeway allowed. For example, there was a recent Sinn Fein motion proposed by Cllr Nicola Lawless that there be a 400 metre restriction between fast food outlets and schools. I could not support this as it would mean the closure of restaurants, chip shops and maybe pubs and would be impossible to implement in small rural areas.
‘On the issue of resigning my seat, I have absolutely no intention of doing so. I was elected by the people of south and west Wicklow and, until they deem otherwise, I will not be going away.
‘ The use of the whip in the county is extreme and uncalled for. In local authorities throughout the country, members from other political parties often disagree with their party colleagues on issues, especially on the rural-urban divide. It’s ironic that the whip, which is an old British way of control throughout the centuries, should be used to such an extent by Sinn Fein in this day and age.’
Cllr Oliver O’Brien claims that no consultation took place before the appointment of Cllr Lawless as party leader in the council.
‘Senior members like John Snell and Gerry O’Neill were overlooked. Cllr Snell has been in the council chamber for a long time.
‘It could have been handled so much better.’
In June, the three Sinn Fein councillors abstained from the vote to support Sinn Fein Councillor Michael O’Connor’s nomination for Chairman of Wicklow County Council and Cllr Nicola Lawless as Deputy Chairperson.
Cllr O’Connor was co-opted onto the council after Deputy Brady’s election as a TD.
‘I couldn’t vote for someone as cathaoirleach who had been co-opted onto the council rather than getting elected. I would feel the same way about any party member, Sinn Fein or otherwise, if they were co-opted,’ added Cllr O’Brien.
He too maintains that he won’t be resigning his seat.
‘I still consider myself a member of Sinn Fein. I would have no problem giving up my seat if I had done something wrong, but I haven’t.’
Deputy Brady is reluctant to get involved in a ‘ he said, she said’ scenario but remains adamant that the position adopted by the Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle, which is the national leadership of Sinn Féin, to remove the whip from the three councillors is fully endorsed by the Wicklow Sinn Féin Officer Board.
He said: ‘None of the eight Sinn Féin Cumainn in Co Wicklow, all of whom were represented, raised any concerns with the outcome of the appeal. In actual fact, Gerry O’Neill’s director of elections in west Wicklow for the last 20 years is fully supportive of the Ard Comhairle outcome.
‘ The party in Wicklow is going from strength to strength. Sinn Féin aims to have a strong cohesive team on the council. We believe this gives you the best opportunity to make the most progress at council level. Anyone following news report will see that has not been the case in the last number of years. Long before Nicola Lawless was leader of the group, some of the council group have been voting against party policy for some time now, and going against national party policy, such as supporting the Marriage Equality Referendum, which was a basic equality measure.
‘At council level, we have very basic guidelines for councillors. Take conferences for example. Any Sinn Féin councillor attending conferences must inform the party group leader, write up a short report on the benefits or otherwise of the conference and feed it in to the council group and then to the full council. Now that hadn’t been happening as far back 2011 or ’12.
‘ This, as public representatives, keeps us on our toes.
Ultimately, Deputy Brady said, that the removal of the whip arose because of the actions of the three councillors.
‘While it is unfortunate it has come to this, we are where we are. The process has now concluded and Gerry O’Neill, Oliver O’Brien and John Snell are now independent councillors within Wicklow County Council.
‘I wish all three well in whatever path they choose. The three lads were close colleagues of mine. I have personal friendships with some of the lads dating back to the early ’90s. I would have avoided this at all costs but unfortunately the lads chose different.’
Deputy Brady is also insistent that the correct procedures were followed when Councillors Nicola Lawless and Mary McDonald initially ran during the last local elections.
‘Cllr Lawless and McDonald both joined the party in advance of the local election in 2014 and both were approved to stand by the Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle. In fact, Cllr Snell also had to undergo the same process himself in 2009 when he first agreed to stand for the party as he hadn’t joined the party up until that point,’ said Deputy Brady.
A statement from Sinn Fein said: ‘Councillors John Snell, Gerry O’Neill and Oliver O’Brien have been working outside of the Sinn Féin group on Wicklow council for some time now and they refuse to take direction from the party.
‘ The party made every effort resolve the matter, including granting them an appeal. That appeal has now concluded and the whip remains removed from these councillors. The three councillors are no longer considered Sinn Féin Councillors as they are no longer under the party whip. We have no further comment to make on the matter.’
Cllr Oliver O’Brien.
Deputy John Brady.
Cllr John Snell.
Cllr Gerry O’Neill.